Archive for July, 2011

Black-and-white Warbler and Gray Catbird

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

A good soaking shower last night helped offset the effects of temperatures near 100 again, so this morning all the trees and grass and other vegetation looked refreshed and amazingly green, given the heat. The air felt fresh and the western half of the sky was soft blue, traced with high, filmy white clouds – though in the east, the sun already was high by mid-morning, bleaching the sky to hazy white.

When I first stepped out the door and stood on the front porch for a minute or two, except for the murmur of one Eastern Bluebird and an indistinct sort of chirping way down in the woods, I could hear no birds at all. Cicadas sang loudly.

Despite the quiet of the morning, as I walked through the neighborhood there seemed to be more activity than usual lately, maybe the first faint signs of a change – or not. I don’t know, but today was the first time in a couple of weeks or more when I’ve been sorry I did not carry binoculars on my walk – it’s been so hot that I’ve not wanted the extra weight, so I’ve been relying on listening, and until today, had not felt I missed much. This morning, though, I caught glimpses of several birds in the foliage or perched in treetops, some flying from one spot to another – and wished I could have gotten a better look.

A Black-and-white Warbler sang in a large thicket of privet, pines, water oaks and other shrubs and vines near the creek, the first time I’ve heard one since mid June. I could just barely see it, creeping its way around the large branches of an oak. A Red-eyed Vireo sang in a wooded area further uphill. And a Gray Catbird gave a raspy, loud meeanh in the old field and flew from the top of a privet bush into another area of thick weeds. Northern Mockingbirds are mostly quiet now, but one sang this morning in the area around a small pond. Others hunted along the roadside, raising their wings to flash the white patches. Brown Thrashers are quiet, and stay mostly out of sight.  A few American Robins forage in open yards. Eastern Bluebirds show their colors, among the most noticeable birds around right now. One Turkey Vulture soared, and appeared to have the whole huge open sky to itself, as far as I could see. Although a few Chimney Swifts usually are around, this morning there were none.

And while many birds are quiet, others are still active and vocal, and their songs and calls come here and there, scattered like splashes of color in a landscape – Eastern Towhees, especially, sing drink-your-tea or cher-weee; Carolina Wrens trill, sing and burble; Chipping Sparrows give dry, small chips and long level trills; Great Crested Flycatchers call whreep or burrrrt. Brown-headed Nuthatches squeak; Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse sing, chatter and fuss. Red-bellied, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers rattle and call; Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zoom by with a low, zinging hum. A Red-shouldered Hawk soaring somewhere out of sight cries kee-yer. American Goldfinches often give their flight calls as they pass over, flashing like little yellow lights in the sun. Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak and one White-eyed Vireo continue to sing in the old field. Mourning Doves coo.

End of Day – Young Red-shouldered Hawk

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Late in the afternoon, near the end of a very hot, sunny day, clouds had grown and gathered and almost covered the blue sky. The back yard felt still, the air humid and warm and mostly quiet at first, except for insects, and the soft, rapid, overlapping pik-a-tuk-tuk-tuk, pik-a-tuk-tuk-tuk calls of two Summer Tanagers. Both were hidden in some pines, screened from view, but they sounded close together and called like this repeatedly for several minutes, one call overlapping another, over and over.

A Carolina Wren sang somewhere down in the woods. And the large, silent black wings of an American Crow rose from a hidden spot among the oaks, followed by another crow. They flew from tree to tree, settled back into the foliage and disappeared. This happened two or three more times, with at least five or six crows around now, and an eerie and ominous feeling about the silent way the black winged forms appeared and moved around. Then a couple more crows arrived and they began to exchange several caws. Two crows flew to the bare branch stubs of a standing dead pine tree, and one of them made a series of some unusual vocal sounds, a variety of short, hoarse, harsh syllables something like kek and ko and krek – though that’s only the vaguest description and they were all strung together in one expression. Neither this crow nor the others seemed agitated, in fact, this one looked down at its own feet as it made these sounds, as if it were talking to itself. After a couple of minutes, it flew to somewhere else.

Meanwhile, the Summer Tanagers continued to call, and an Acadian Flycatcher came unusually far uphill from the creek, and called sharp wheets! for several minutes, moving from place to place among the oaks, sweet gums and dogwoods around the edge of the yard, but staying out of sight in the leaves. A big yellow and black Tiger Swallowtail floated from purple flower to flower in the butterfly bush beside the deck.

When I looked up at the dead pine snag again, at first I looked away, thinking there was another crow sitting there – then I looked back. It was not a crow, but a hawk. A closer look revealed a handsome young Red-shouldered Hawk, with dark brown streaks across the upper chest and on the sides. Its head was turned in profile, as if posing. After only a few minutes, it spread its broad wings and slipped off quietly into the woods and out of sight. The crows seemed to have disappeared, too, after that, and I don’t know if they had been watching the hawk and discussing it or if their presence was just coincidental – they never harassed it the way they would a Red-tailed Hawk.

The Summer Tanagers fell quiet or drifted away. Two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zipped between the feeder and the branches of nearby oaks. A Scarlet Tanager sang its strident song from very far away in the woods. The songs of cicadas rose and fell.

And then one of the nicest things – a Wood Thrush began to sing from down in the woods along the creek, its fluted notes a cool, relaxing, enchanting music, at the same time rare, and the most natural and fitting way to end a summer day. It sang for several minutes, gradually making its way up the creek, and fading into the distance.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Yesterday morning was mostly cloudy but very warm and humid. I felt as if I’d stepped into a hothouse when I walked out the door and my glasses fogged completely. There was very little breeze, and few bird songs or calls. Very quiet.

A couple of American Robins squeaked and squabbled in the front yard. An Eastern Bluebird muttered a few blurry notes. The tireless Summer Tanager sang from an oak down the street – one of very few birdsongs.

The hollow, echoing coowp calls of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo – from far in the distance – almost sounded like underwater sounds moving through the dense, steamy foliage of the woods. After several of these one-syllable calls, the Cuckoo gave a full dry long call, a series of short, rapid ka-ka-ka-kas, ending in a long, drawn-out cawp-cawp-cawp-cawp-cawp.

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo is one of the most characteristic birds of a southern woodland in summer. Exotic in both appearance and voice, it eats caterpillars and stays mostly in the forest canopy, hidden among the leaves. Slightly larger than a Blue Jay, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo is much more slender, smooth and sleek, with an elegant shape, a creamy-white breast and throat, dark brown back and head, reddish-brown wing edges, a long, down-curved yellow bill, and a spectacular long black tail with large white spots.

Although Yellow-billed Cuckoos are still considered common in the Southeast, its populations are declining dramatically, mostly due to habitat loss and degradation. Here in the woods around our neighborhood this summer, for the first time, I’ve rarely heard a Cuckoo’s call. In previous years, this jungle-like call has been a signature part of most summer days, one of the sounds that makes these woods what they are. So I miss it – the sound and the occasional glimpse of the long black and white tail and the bird, screened among the leaves up high in a tulip poplar tree or an oak, with sunshine filtering through, a sight that always feels like a glimpse into a secret part of woodland life. But it’s part of a woodland community that’s changing steadily here, as in other places, too.

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo is also sometimes called a “Raincrow,” because some people say it calls more frequently on cloudy days – and this morning it was cloudy when I heard it, though unfortunately, no rain ever came.


Mississippi Kite

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

About 5:30 this afternoon – very hot and sunny, with white clouds in a hazy blue sky – a Mississippi Kite flew over our deck, not far above the trees. It was low enough to see a beautiful view of the soft gray plumage and round white head, long slender wings and darker tail held narrow and long, slightly flared. It did not stay long in view, slipping away out of sight behind the trees toward the southwest.

The Coo of a Mourning Dove

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

The first week of July has brought more long, hot days of summer, now defined by the dry, rasping, humming, chirping, buzzing music not of birds but of insect songs and sounds – cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets, wasps, bees, flies, gnats, beetles, mosquitoes, dragonflies, katydids at night, and many more than I can name.

Birds have become so quiet at times it seems unnerving. A few still sing, but not so often, not so many at once, and some have fallen quiet. So to see and hear them takes more time and patience, a good excuse to drift into the spirit of a summer day and just be lazy – sit back in the shade and watch to see what happens.

In the mornings, a Northern Cardinal and Carolina Wren are often the only birds singing when I first go outside – not a complaint, the songs of both are music enough to make a day worthwhile. An Eastern Bluebird may murmur its blurry song from a branch near the box where a pair is feeding a second brood. A Chipping Sparrow spins a long, long level trill. A Red-bellied Woodpecker quuurrrs. An Eastern Phoebe hunts quietly from low branches around the yard. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in water oaks calls a wispy spee-spee. By mid-morning, the days are already hot, the sun already high and bleaching out the blue of the sky. And from somewhere ripples the soft, cool hoo-OOO-oo-oo of a Mourning Dove, a sound so common and familiar I almost don’t notice it, woven so seamlessly in with the background music of insects and barely stirring leaves.

Distant Crows caw and Blue Jays cry. And from a large oak down the street, a Summer Tanager whistles its lilting, sing-song tune over and over – it’s one of the most persistent singers lately, along with a Mockingbird that still sings exuberantly from the top of a tall Leyland cypress. Downy Woodpeckers whinny, House Wrens burble in effervescent bursts of song, Goldfinches fly over calling potato-chip and Chimney Swifts chitter, a House Finch pair comes to the bird bath, and each day there seem to be a few more American Robins foraging in large grassy, shady yards.

The Song of a Wood Thrush

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

On several recent mornings, the song of a Wood Thrush has floated up from woods along one of the creeks that run through our neighborhood. Its ee-oh-lay, ee-oh-loo-eee sounds like an enchanted flute, not just a song, but a poem, lyrical, shining and shadowed, impossibly beautiful, complex and haunting.

It’s never close enough to see, staying hidden far down in the woods near the creek – a Robin-like bird with a shaded-brown back and bold dark spots on the breast. Like an increasing number of woodland birds that used to be common, a Wood Thrush now is heard much less often here. It feels lucky this summer to have at least one around.

In the same low, wooded area near the creek, an Acadian Flycatcher casts its sharp, thin wheet-sit. A Red-eyed Vireo sings, a slower, less urgent refrain than earlier in the spring. A Red-shouldered Hawk cries kee-yer, kee-yer, soaring somewhere beyond the trees. A pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches exchange squeaky calls as they forage in tall pines.

A little further up the road, up a hill and into a more open area, two Barn Swallows swoop around a house with a large covered porch and the large open grassy yard.

Female Scarlet Tanager

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

Early one afternoon, a female Scarlet Tanager flew to the shepherd’s crook that holds a large green fern on the rail of our back deck. We had just finished lunch and were sitting at the kitchen table, and I saw her from there, through the glass in the door. Muted yellow with olive wings, a relatively small thick bill, she looked pretty in an understated way. After a few moments, she flew to a table then to the top of an umbrella, to the deck rail – and away.

A male Scarlet Tanager still sings nearby now and then, but not constantly, and occasionally I hear their chick-brrrr calls in the trees, an expressive, electric call, a sound that’s more than a sound, a shivering, pleasant, confiding feeling.

The back deck seems to be a favorite spot for several birds – or maybe it’s just that it’s an easy spot for us to watch through the kitchen windows. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds come and go from the feeder frequently, and the moat in the middle of the feeder – filled with water to discourage ants – has definitely become a favorite watering hole for Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, American Goldfinch – and at least once, a Brown-headed Nuthatch. I’ve put a shallow clay saucer of water nearby on the deck, in the shade, but so far the small birds still prefer hanging upside down on the wire that holds the hummingbird feeder to sip from the little moat.

Sunbathing Great Crested Flycatcher

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

A Great Crested Flycatcher continues to come to the sunny part of the deck almost every day around noon (and maybe at other times, too, and it’s just around noon that we notice) – it’s a very regular visitor. It sits on the rail or sometimes on the floor of the deck, in full sun, lowers its body and spreads out its cinnamon-edged wings and long cinnamon tail, turning its head slightly upwards and sits languid and almost motionless, soaking up the sun for several minutes at a time – but flashing away in a heartbeat if startled. I don’t know if it’s the same one every time, or if maybe a male and a female both come, separately, since I first saw two sunbathing together.

A Carolina Chickadee exhibited the same, or quite similar behavior one afternoon, fanning out its tail feathers widely, spreading its wings and sitting low on the sun-warmed wood – but it stayed only briefly.

Two or three Carolina Wrens come often to search for insects and spiders around the plants and railings on the deck, sometimes quiet, but most often trilling, chattering, burbling or pausing to sing.

Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting in the Old Field

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

In the old field, both a young Blue Grosbeak and an Indigo Bunting continue to sing. This morning the Blue Grosbeak sang from the top of a chinaberry tree, called chink and flew down to the top of a tall ragged weed near the roadside, as if to say good morning, switching his tail vigorously, and singing again. A first-summer male, he remains mostly brownish in color, with a smoky-blue head and inky blue smudges of color in the brown. The Indigo Bunting is a tiny brilliant dot of sapphire blue that usually isn’t hard to find because he chants his sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-chew tirelessly, usually from the very top of a tree or shrub.

Two Red-tailed Hawks sat on utility poles overlooking the field and the highway beyond, and a Black Vulture sat on another pole, distant from the hawks, with its wings held out to warm them in the sun. A Pine Warbler also sings in the field, and Eastern Towhees – birds I way too often overlook. Often one perches in the top of a vine-draped tree to sing, bold and colorful black, red-orange and white. Several Mockingbirds live in and around the field, sometimes one sings, but not so often. Mostly they hunt in the weeds and grass, raising wings to flash white wing patches, and perch on the wires with Mourning Doves and sometimes an Eastern Phoebe.

The field itself looks pretty ragged and rough. Deep purple stiff verbena grows low along part of the roadside, a few white asters and dandelions here and there, some wild potato-vine flowers – large white flowers with burgundy centers – out in the power cut, and the grasses are thick. But weeks of very hot weather have taken a toll on a lot of the trees and vines and other plants, I think. The weeds look dry and stunted and tough, and even the kudzu is barely spreading so far. Thunderstorms have brought good soaking rains fairly often – we’ve been lucky with that. But the heat has been unrelenting. It’s the hottest summer I can ever remember – temperatures stay above 90 and often above the mid 90s for weeks at a time.

Long Summer Twilights

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

In long, soft orange twilights, fireflies flash low around the shrubs, under the trees and out in the grass. The air stays warm and humid, with the summer scent of grass, but with cool currents that drift up from low, shady spots. Two bats circle over the open part of our yard, up at the top of the driveway, where we often walk to see the end of day and watch for the first stars to come out. Cicadas keep singing long after sunset, but gradually, as the light very slowly fades, they fall silent and the katydids begin to sing. One evening we watched as a female Eastern Bluebird made several late, last trips in and out of the bluebird box in the deepening shadows. The white blossoms of crepe myrtles and impatiens glow in the dark as if they had captured light and now reflect it.